Is it a halachik requirement to address Rabbi’s in 3rd person, or just a respectful thing to do?
I understand speaking to Gedolim in 3rd person, but it is awkward, and sounds really stupid (like we’re trying to be over-pious) to address our American born Shul Rabbi in 3rd person.
What is the halacha?
And, is there a difference between speaking to an Anglo-Saxon Rav in English, or an Israeli Rav in Hebrew?
It seems from the Rambam that the source of speaking to someone in third person out of respect is not a Halachah. In Hilchot Talmud Torah, chapter 5 that discusses honoring the sages, he writes in Halachah 5, One should not greet his Rabbi, or return greetings to him, in the same way that people greet friends and return greetings to each other, but one should bow slightly in front of him and say in reverence, Shalom to you, my Rabbi. If the Rabbi greeted him, he returns greetings by saying, Shalom to you, my Rabbi and teacher. We see from here that he is speaking respectfully in second person. Also in Halachah 9 he writes, if one sees his Rabbi violating a Torah matter, he tells him, so and so is what you taught us, our Rabbi. Whenever he mentions something he heard he says to him, this is what you taught us, our Rabbi. Here we see again that he used a respectful terminology in second person.
From this we see that addressing in third person to demonstrate reverence is indeed a custom. It depends on the language and custom of the place. I think that in English it is more common to use third person only when speaking to Gedolim and not with any Rabbi. But it is important to calculate wisely how to approach the Rabbi, it is always better to give a little more respect than too little.
Rabbi Akiva taught, “Et Hashem Elokecha Tira” (you shall fear Hashem your G-d - Devarim 6, 13) L’Rabot Talmidei Chachamim (fear Torah scholars as well) – explains Rashi, so you shall fear your rabbi as you fear Heaven (Pesachim 22b).
Rabbi Elazar ben Shammua says: Let the honor of your student be as dear to you as your own; and the honor of your colleague as the fear of your Rabbi; and the fear of your Rabbi as your fear of Heaven (Avot 4, 12 or 15).
The question arises - why is it not enough to respect each one according to his level, a student as a student, a colleague as a colleague, and a rabbi as a rabbi; why do we have to honor each one at a higher level than what he actually is?
Rabbi Chaim of Volozin explains in his commentary “Ruach Chaim” on Pirkei Avot, that the evil inclination blinds a person and makes him view someone who is greater than him as if he is from his lowest students. Therefore it says: “Let the honor of your student be as dear to you as your own”. And one who seems to you as your colleague, honor him as your Rabbi. And one who seems to you as your Rabbi, honor him as Heaven. So you will fulfill your duty according to the reality that they are surely at a higher level than what it seems in your eyes.
We learn from here that it is always better to give a little more honor than it appears we should, because one tends to lessen others’ honor.